Tag: Taiwan

Ham Omelettes and Taiwan’s Defence

In the old old question of why the weak occasionally beat the strong, my favourite metaphor is the Ham Omelette. In a Ham Omelette, the chicken is involved but the pig is committed.

In a clash over the Taiwan Strait, who would be the pig, who the chicken? This matters, because in the end predicting the outcome of a China-Taiwan clash would not be about the absolutes of military victory narrowly conceived, but about the issue of cost tolerance and the fear of a Pyrrhic result. Continue reading


Lands of the Rising Sun

Hawai’i isn’t the only colonial possession
to get the inset treatment.

 Although the authors of the Duck of Minerva do not condone, endorse, or even take seriously this proposal, we do want to bring to our readers’ attention a petition urging President Obama to return Taiwan to the Emperor of Japan.

This is not entirely crazy, just 99.98 percent insane. Taiwan, of course, was a part of the Japanese Empire after the cession of Formosa in the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895. Less well known in the  West is the depth of pro-Japanese sentiment in Taiwan; former president Lee Teng-hui, for instance, was graduated from Kyoto University in 1946. More immediately important for D.C.-area sports fans was the fact that the Japanese introduced Taiwan to baseball, thereby indirectly leading to the Nationals’ pitching staff including Chien-Ming Wang (see also).

The petition’s unique one-state solution to the Formosa problem deserves consideration at least as in-depth as this blog post.


Impressions from Taiwan (2): The Security Environment

Statue Outside the Guingtou Battle Museum
(Photo: Dan Nexon)

Note: this is the second post stemming from my June trip to Taiwan. The first is available here.

Seven years ago Bill Petti wrote a piece at the Duck called “US, Taiwan, and the Myth of an Obligation to Defend.” Bill eviscerated the claim that the US was legally obligated to defend the island against an attack from the mainland, but concluded by noting that:

Many US policymakers have come to see our position on Taiwan as a barometer by which enemies and allies judge US resolve. Over the last 50 years we have coupled our stance on Taiwan to measures of our resolve. Whether other states actually view Taiwan as such a symbol is disputable. However, it seems pretty clear that we have come to this conclusion. For that reason, it is plausable to argue that we would, in fact, intervene if Taiwan were attacked.

Bill’s conclusion looks less convincing in 2012 than it did in 2005. Indeed, I returned from Taiwan with the general impression that the Republic of China’s (ROC) strategic position is deteriorating and that there’s little on the horizon to suggest a reversal of fortune. This trajectory is much more than a matter of whether or not the US provides more advanced weaponry to the Republic of China Armed Forces. It stems from the growing economic asymmetry between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the ROC, the fact that many of Taiwan’s most plausible regional allies are also its key trade competitors, the second-order effects of the ROC’s legal status, and Taipei’s awkward position in the dispute over the South China Sea.

I. The Brute Facts

China has a larger population, a bigger military budget, and a lot more money than Taiwan. Short of a major shock, such as an asteroid devastating the PRC but sparing the ROC, none of these factors are likely to change. Below are some recent trends.

Source: indexmundi
Source: indexmundi
Source: Index Mundi

Source: CATO Institute

The balance-of-forces equation has very much tilted in the PRC’s favor. As the Taipei Times reported in March:

Beijing announced on Sunday that its defense budget for this year would rise 11.2 percent from last year to 670.27 billion yuan (US$106.41 billion). 

China’s official defense budget accounts for 1.28 percent of its GDP, compared with more than 2 percent for the US. 

In a press conference on Sunday, National People’s Congress spokesman Li Zhaoxing (李肇星) said the defense budget also included money for experimentation, procurement and new types of weapons. 

Despite a slight slowdown from last year, when China’s military spending rose 12.7 percent, the continued growth is of great concern to Taiwan, which has pursued detente with its neighbor. 

Despite a relative reduction in tensions in the Taiwan Strait since the election of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) in 2008, military pundits say that Beijing has not slowed down its ambitious military modernization projects and has failed to remove the 1,600 or so ballistic missiles targeting Taiwan. 

Taiwan has budgeted NT$317.3 billion (US$10.72 billion) in defense spending this year, a rise of 7.7 percent from last year and the first increase since Ma came to power. 

A large portion of Taiwan’s military budget this year will finance the production of the -Hsiung Feng-IIE cruise missile, the Hsiung Feng III supersonic ship-to-ship missile and upgrades for the “Ching Kuo” indigenous defense fighter.

II. Policy Challenges

It isn’t simply that the PRC has an advantage across most major power indicators and that its advantage will grow over time. It is also that a variety of factors undermine Taiwan’s ability to compensate by forming robust balancing coalitions, maintain its economic position, and otherwise do what it can to deal with its strategic environment.

First, balance-of-threat theory suggests a balancing coalition among South Korea (ROK), Japan, and Taiwan. But a number of factors interfere with the formation of such an alliance, including historical resentments and suspicions between the ROK and Japan, the fact that the ROK and the ROC are major competitors for the same export markets. Complicating matters is that all three countries are increasingly reliant on economic ties with China, a situation that China has been able to exploit. The 2010 Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement between Bejing and Taipei gave Taiwanese companies advantages over those based in the ROK and Japan — over and above those stemming from cultural and linguistic factors. But now Taipei fears being “frozen out” by the prospect of a Chinese-ROK Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

Second, the ROCs legal status, in conjunction with China’s market power, makes it difficult for Taipei to develop a network of FTAs comparable to that of the ROK and other economic competitors. As an editorial last year in the Taipei Times argued (note in particular the focus on the ROK):

As bad as this is, worse lies ahead for Taiwanese exporters. Their competition with South Korean exporters is set to intensify even further, as South Korea looks to implement an FTA with the US by the end of the year. At the same time, Seoul is also aggressively pursuing a trilateral trade pact with Japan and China. 

In contrast, Taiwan’s promotion of an FTA with either the US or the EU has been on hold for years, with no signs of a quick breakthrough anytime soon. 

In the event that a trilateral trade deal between South Korea, Japan and China comes into being next year, Taiwan will be further marginalized in the global economy and increasingly less able to compete with South Korea, which has already established FTAs with Australia, Chile, Singapore, India and ASEAN. 

Little wonder then that as the one-year anniversary of signing the ECFA approaches some people have come to dismiss the government’s euphoria over its impact on Taiwan’s push for more FTAs as nothing short of delusional.

Third, growing tensions over the South China Sea should create an opening for the ROC. Taipei’s general strategy is to present itself as “reasonable” in comparison to the mainland’s increasing aggressiveness. But that’s a delicate issue, insofar as the ROC, in its capacity as “China,” makes exactly the same territorial claims as the mainland, with exactly the same legal justifications, and with a great deal of vigor. This places limits on Taiwan’s ability to exploit the situation to its diplomatic advantage, as does the threat to its relations with the PRC if it were to start offering concessions to secure greater military cooperation.

Indeed, lingering behind most of these factors is a basic reality: due to its market power, its growing military strength, and cultural and strategic divisions among its neighbors, Beijing is extremely well-positioned to undermine the formation of balancing coalitions. In retrospect, the US decision to (largely) pursue a hub-and-spoke alliance system in East Asia may have been a poor strategic choice, inasmuch as it exacerbated (or, at least, did nothing to resolve) the historical-cultural frictions among the PRC’s neighbors. I say this not out of a desire to see China encircled, but because I think the realistic possibility of a regional coalition would be an effective deterrent to Beijing adopting an overly aggressive Asian policy in the future. But regardless of what I think, it makes Taipei’s strategic environment one of great constraint.

Taipei’s loss of influence in the United States further compounds its predicament. China experts used to receive language instruction in the ROC, but now, with the PRC open for business, they generally polish their Mandarin on the mainland. Indeed, the PRC’s shadow over Asia is so great that Taiwan is often little more than an afterthought. In consequence, what little anglophone ink gets spilled on the ROC veers in unproductive directions. Some argue that the US should abandon Taiwan to accomodate the PRC. Others see Taiwan as a small democratic nation up against America’s next great military rival, and see Taiwan as a piece of a broader containment strategy. The most common approach is to double-down on the status-quo and hope for the best.

The last also seems to be the KMT’s policy: keep relations stable and put its faith in the notion that the ROC’s shining example will facilitate democratization in the mainland–and with it unification. I remain unsure why Taiwan’s population would want to join a democracy in which they would have, by weight of numbers, virtually no influence. And I am unconvinced that democratization would lead to a warmer and fuzzier China on issues such as Taiwan’s status. Indeed, democratization might prove to be exactly the sort of messy affair that Jack Snyder and Ed Mansfield warn about–the kind that fans the flames of hyper-nationalism.

III. The United States

Washington’s comparative lack of attention to Taiwan policy isn’t good for anyone. There is a reasonable chance that, should cross-strait relations go horribly wrong, the United States would intervene in favor of Taiwan. That’s not a contingency best addressed via current policy drift. It also leads to some weird views. For example, a great many US observers see Taipei’s cruise-missile program as offensive in character, perhaps because of a conviction that cruise missiles are, by definition, offensive weapons. But for Taiwan they represent a weapon of interdiction and retaliation aimed at deterring the PRC. This makes even more sense in the context of Taiwan’s aging F-16 fleet and its lack of access to more advanced strike aircraft.

Again, the point is not that the US ought to be arming Taiwan to the teeth, but that Taiwan’s role in US East Asia policy deserves much more concerted attention. At the very least, US-Taiwan relations should be seen as relatively autonomous from China policy. This would help break the counterproductive tendency of viewing US-Chinese relation as unidimensional. It also opens up other possibilities. Clearly, the US shouldn’t be taking an unnecessarily hard line on Taiwan. But it can take steps to facilitate Taiwan’s integration into free-trade zones and otherwise improve its relative economic position. Now that Taipei has caved on US beef imports, Washington should move quickly toward negotiating an FTA or FTA-like agreement with Taipei.

The first day that I was in Taiwan one of my travelling companions said that, putting aside all the propaganda we were about to sit through, I would likely leave with the sense that it would be a shame if the people of Taiwan lost what they have build: their comparatively robust democracy, their economic wealth, and their freedoms. He was right. But there are plenty of futures in which US interests outweigh such considerations. The main task for US policy toward Taiwan is to help alleviate, however slightly, the Taipei’s highly constrained environment. It should be possible for future ROC governments, whether DPP or KMT, to have more freedom to maneuver than they currently enjoy. That seems like a worthy, but more limited, goal for US policy toward the ROC.


Impressions from Taiwan (1): Background

Taipei 101
Photo Credit: Dan Nexon
I spent 2-9 June in Taiwan on a trip sponsored by the government of the Republic of China. Taipei funds these trips, and others like them, as part of an effort to influence academics and opinion-leaders; while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs(MOFA) would certainly be pleased if its outreach resulted in more voices advocating on behalf of ROC interests, it would, I think, be satisfied if we simply paid more attention to Taiwan.
As one of the China experts on the trip explained to me, Taipei has seen a significant loss of influence in the United States. Many of its core supporters are no longer in congress. US-based China experts used to receive their language and cultural training in Taiwan, but now that the mainland is open to westerners that’s no longer the case. Despite the fact that the ROC is one of the America’s largest trading partners — our tenth-largest exporter and fifteenth-largest market for US goods — most of Washington’s attention is of focused on the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) without particular regard for the ROC. Meanwhile, you may or may not know that US-ROC open-trade processes have frozen up over Taipei’s ban on theimport of US beef.
I used the trip as an excuse to read up on the history of the island, which is quite complicated. The wikipedia entry covers most of the basics, but here are a few key points.
  • Taiwan has experienced many waves of settlement, including by “indigenous” Austronesians, Hakka Chinese, and Han Chinese. 
  • The indigenous tribes were headhunters, and until the period of Japanese rule they remained pretty much in control of the eastern part of the island. 
  • The Dutch established two settlements on Taiwan to use as bases for trade with Ming China. 
  • They were defeated and forced out — although genetic traces remain — by “Koxinga” (Zheng Chenggong), the son of the leader of pirate confederation who had become an admiral to the Ming dynasty. 
  • After the Manchu conquest, Koxinga fought for Ming restoration; Taiwan became his redoubt and home to the Ming claimants to the throne. 
  • The island’s leadership eventually accepted Qing rule.
  • The 1894-1895 Sino-Japanese War concluded with a treaty that transferred Taiwan to the Japanese Empire. A group of islanders reacted by declaring the existence of a “Democratic State of Taiwan” (often called the “Republic of Taiwan), which did not last long at all, but has historical resonance for advocates of Taiwanese independence. 
  • Japanese rule was harsh — and practically genocidal toward some Austronesian inhabitants — but also did much to develop Taiwan’s economy, infrastructure, and the education of its people. The efficiency and professionalism of Japanese colonial administration compared favorably to the early years of KMT rule, which was corrupt, inefficient, and brutal toward the Taiwan-born population. Many Taiwanese therefore view the Japanese in a much more positive light than do Koreans and mainland Chinese.
  • In the 1980s the KMT began the process of democratizing the country. In 1988 Lee Teng-Hui became the first ethnically Taiwanese President. In the 2000 elections a two-way split in the KMT led to the election of the opposition, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has strong pro-independence leanings (since moderated). It rejects the KMT’s position that the “end game” is necessarily reunification between the mainland and Taiwan. DPP rule was marred by inexperience — most of its ranking members were opposition activists during KMT authoritarian rule — and the fact that the government bureaucracy is firmly controlled by, and oriented toward, the KMT. The DPP was re-elected in a surprise victory after an assassination attempt on the President in 2004. In 2008 the KMT regained power, and President MA was re-elected in 2012. His popularity has subsequently tanked (for some comparative perspective on Asian democratization, see Slater and Wong).
  • The ROC’s democracy is vibrant to the point of raucousness, but the DPP insists — not without cause — that the process is incomplete. The KMT made a lot of money during the period of one-party rule, and its economic interests give it a major monetary advantage. The pro-KMT biases in the civil service — which were very much in evidence during our meetings — also present challenges to the DPP.
  • Mainland China is much more comfortable with the KMT than the DPP, in large part because of KMT opposition to independence. Despite much sabre-rattling during the DPP period — and, in fact, during Lee Teng-Hui’s last term — the last 10+ years have seen growing economic and travel ties between Taiwan and the mainland. Mainland tourists now flood, for example, the Royal Palace Museum. The noise level there is so high that our guide used personal radios to communicate with us. Many important industrial operations in China, including the famous Foxconn, are owned by Taiwanese businessmen. 

ROC officials spent a fair amount of time attempting to explain its legal status, which can be rather confusing. The PRC views it as a renegade province. Beijing has threatened to invade if the island “secedes” to become the Republic of Taiwan.

Under the ROC constitution, Taiwan is also a province of China. The KMT views the ROC as the legitimate government of all of China. As supporters explained to us, the ROC predates the PRC and the latter is simply in unlawful rebellion against the rightful government of China. As I noted above, the DPP is more pro-independence, but has moderated to an official position of keeping the status of Taiwan “open” while the KMT is pledged to reunification once mainland China democratizes. They hope, as the only example of a functioning democracy in “greater China,” to demonstrate the viability and desirability of democratization on the mainland.

In practice, the ROC has gone from being widely recognized as the legitimate government of China to having only a handful of countries support its claim. The turning point occurred in 1972, when the US pivoted to support Beijing as part of its anti-Soviet strategy. Kissinger was apparently willing to abandon Taiwan, but congressional and public support for the island averted such an outcome — enshrined by the passage of the US-Taiwan relations act of 1979 and Ronald Reagan’s “six assurances” (for details on the “one China policy,” see this CRS report). Whether Washington has made good on its commitments is a matter of some debate: arguably, the US refusal to upgrade the ROC’s air-defense capabilities — the ROC currently flies F-16 A/Bs and is seeking F-16 C/Ds — violates its legal obligations. But the deteriorating strategic position of the ROC is the subject of my next post. 

Bombs into Knives

I’ve been meaning to write substantive posts about my recent trip to Taiwan, but between the time change, conference prep, and getting sick, I haven’t had the time. In the interim, I found a video of the knife-making process at Maester Wu knives on Kinmen.

Kinmen (aka Jinmen aka Quemoy) was repeatedly, and intensively, shelled by the People’s Republic of China in 1958. Maester Wu Bombshell Steel Knives took advantage of the cheap source of steel and produces kitchen, hunting, and utility blades. The knives can be bought through limited online outlets; the factory pictured above has become a major tourist attraction. 

Indeed, tourism has become a major source of income on the island, such that Taiwanese mcmansions are springing up along the side of major roads. Pictures at some future date.


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